Yesterday I bought a two-litre carton of milk at the corner store: four dollars and nine cents, and the nice lady pulled open a plastic bag and started to put the milk inside. ‘That's grand,’ said I, gripping the carton about the midriff. ‘I don't need a bag.’ I could bear the carton the full fifty metres back to my house without plastic assistance.
Who taught me the iron self-discipline necessary to forego a free carrying device? The Irish government did. Last year, I was living in Usher’s Island, Dublin, when they introduced the tax on plastic bags, and I witnessed the miracle by which the tax became a part of the national identity.
Ireland has an ongoing struggle with litter. Before the tax, plastic bags blew around the cul-de-sacs of grey council estates; they knotted about Georgian railings and hung like ragged petrochemical fruit from the branches of sad urban trees.
The Department of the Environment came up with the plastic bag tax, to go into effect on March 4, 2002. From that day, the plastic bag had a price: fifteen euro cents each, equal to two Canadian dimes. And shopkeepers could sell quality reusable shopping bags at a higher price. Revenue from this tax was to be set aside to promote recycling and discourage litter.
Think of the Republic of Ireland as a very large village rather than a very small nation. It never acquired the Roman and Anglo-Saxon compulsion to organize everything, but the Irish have a peculiar, sporadic genius for communal action – a kind of population-wide lurch in a single direction.
I witnessed this unpredictable commonality at an open-air rock concert at Slane Castle, where the ground was littered with red paper cups. While waiting for the title act to appear, some kind of group madness seized everybody, and we picked up these red paper cups and hurled them into the air, and kept flinging them again and again, whooping and hollering in a gloroiously pagan war dance. The thousands of paper cups fluttering in the air looked like the falling cherry blossoms beloved of haiku poets. It was extraordinarily lovely.
So it was with the plastic bag tax. How many political initiatives are ever described as a “spectacular overnight success”? The plastic bag tax was. Consumption of bags dropped 90%, and still there was a windfall for environmental programmes. Why was it so successful? Perhaps because the idea of paying a voluntary tax inspired exactly that kind of mass communal movement. Suddenly, the entire nation was remembering to bring its shopping bags when it went for the groceries.
Of course, you can’t count on having a shopping bag every time you need to pick up a few things. So: when you’ve bought six items and you forgot to bring a bag, do you pay a measly fifteen cents, or do you decide that you can carry everything in your arms?
The latter, of course. That fifteen cents could fall out of your pocket and you wouldn’t notice it, but be asked to relinquish it voluntarily – to pay it as a tax of your own free will – and you’ll say to yourself, look here, I can take the eggs in this hand, and hold the bag of flour in my elbow, and pile the apples on top and everything else in my other hand and we’re grand.
I never lost that ferocious self-discipline when I came here. Damn your free bags; I will not take them. Look at you, Canada, you complacent nation, rolling about in free plastic bags like hamsters in woodchips. Where is your backbone? Where is your will? Where is the steely determination that enables you to hold a carton of milk without the mediation of a petrochemical carrying device? Dalton, this is one revenue-grabbing exercise that we’ll thank you for. Tax the sacks. Now.